by Jane Kinninmont
Six years ago Iraq faced its own civil war, but managed to pull itself back from the brink. Now Syria threatens to unravel its politics once again, as competing Iraqi factions are tempted to support opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.
While other foreign sponsors of the Syrian civil war are largely able to keep the violence away from their territory, the risks to Iraq, which has a long and porous border with Syria, are direct, and extreme.
The conflict threatens to exacerbate Iraq's existing internal fissures, as rival factions view the risks and opportunities it presents in radically different ways, and are increasingly liable to being drawn in to support different sides. For Iraq's opposition groups, the problem in Syria is at heart the brutal crushing of an initially peaceful protest movement, now being slaughtered by an Iranian-backed regime.
This echoes their own anger at Iranian intervention in Iraq in support of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Worse, they see their government, which includes Shia parties involved in horrendous sectarian purges, as complicit in the brutality. And they hope that an eventual blow to the Assad regime in Syria, if it weakens Iran, would help weaken the Maliki government.
For Iraq's ruling party, the Islamic Dawa Party, there is no love lost with Bashar al-Assad's Ba'athist regime. Only a few years ago, Maliki perceived Assad as threatening Iraq's security by allowing the flow of Sunni jihadi fighters into Iraq to fight the Americans. This policy was apparently driven by the hope that if the US became bogged down in Iraq, the prospect of regime change in Syria would be less appealing to the Western powers and to hopeful Syrians. Today, the policy in Baghdad seems to be 'better the devil you know'.
Maliki's bigger fear is the Gulf-backed Sunni Islamist elements of the Syrian opposition, who are presumed to be deeply hostile to Iraq. The Dawa Party also sees a link between the growth of Sunni Islamist militant elements in Syria and the recent wave of protests in western Iraq, which they have accused of being backed by Gulf countries even if those protests have many local causes, from the poor nature of public services to anger about the heavy-handed response of the security forces.
Officially the Iraqi government supports the rights of the Syrian people, but through dialogue -- an entirely theoretical position in the absence of any such talks -- while opposing the armed opposition. In a visit to Iraq in April, John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, asked Iraq to check flights from Iran to Syria for weapons and expressed concerns that Iraq's sovereignty was being violated.
Kerry's request raises a serious question: to what extent could the Baghdad government take a radically different position from Iran on Syria? At present, Iran, Iraq and Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia, all see their interests threatened in different ways by the prospect of the regime changing from Assad to an unknown but presumed largely Sunni Islamist government. As Iraqi government policymakers articulate it, Iraq's approach to Syria is primarily defensive -- based on fears that a new Syrian regime would come to threaten it -- rather than seeking any position inside Syria.
The irony is that the interests of Iraq's different factions in the outcome in Syria are not completely incompatible. There is sympathy among the Iraqi Shia, who were persecuted by their own Ba'athist regime, for protesters murdered by a brutal army. Most of Iraq's Sunnis don't want Syria to be a haven for Al-Qaeda either.
Ultimately, it is in the interest of all parties in Iraq to avoid a relapse into civil war. But in a context of mutual mistrust, there is a massive problem in achieving this goal. In the fog of war, each side is blaming the other for having purely sectarian motivations, or being foreign puppets, with little analysis of rational hopes and fears.
Jane Kinninmont is Senior Research Fellow at the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme.
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